Being an author and getting the hell on with it

You know what’s so entirely scary about being an author? It’s not finishing the book. It’s not even reading horrible reviews about the book or convincing yourself that you’re the worst thing to ever happen to the written word and you must immediately fake your own death and never write again.

It’s the lack of control.

Once your book is finished, you have multiple rounds of edits, where the control lies with you. It is yours to mold and shape as you will, with guidance from agents and editors and beta readers and whoever else you trust.

But the power lies with you.

Once it’s out there in the world? All bets are off, mate.

You are not likely to be in control of the packaging of your book. The cover, the title, the blurb. You may have some say, you may have a lot of opinions, or you may just want the experts to do their job whilst being the tiniest bit unsure…

And then rankings, what can you do about that? Sales? You can yell about it on social media and bully your friends and family. You can arrange events and readings and workshops and competitions and the truth is:

Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you would have had a bestseller anyways. Sometimes you would have had a wonderful book that was beloved by the fourteen people who read it.

I say this not to upset you. I am a control freak. I want to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. That’s why I write books in the first place! It’s a way of creating the world, bending it to my will and making the things I want to happen take place.

So when I can’t be in control of how my book does in the big wide world? It’s painful. And frustrating. And it means setting myself up to fail.

I tell you this not to stop the launch parties or events or facebook ads, or hours talking to friends on social media. I tell you this to set you free.

Control what you can, write the book you love, be proud of it. Do everything you can for it, boost it and support it…and then let it go. If you’re very lucky, it will have built it’s own momentum, grown its own wings whilst you’ve been working. And if it hasn’t, it will paddle along like the happiest little goose whilst you work on your next golden egg.

(I know, I’m mixing metaphors, but a bird is a bird is a bird).

In the mean time, in the spirit of complete honesty, I’m writing this blog post because I cannot control the fate of my little book. I may have significantly fewer promotional events this year due to a certain virus, and obviously that is the right thing to do (though I certainly have not accepted it graciously *stamps foot about cancelled party*) so, let’s support authors who are releasing their babies into this weird time, and especially debuts who will have had so much excitement for this time! Celebrate and support and do what you can, because whether your little bird flies or not: you wrote a book!

Intro to Content marketing for authors

Content marketing is an easy win for authors, and in many ways a lot of us are doing it already without knowing why it’s called that or what it’s for!

I came to content marketing after being an author, but it’s only this year I really started to put together the value for authors.

Quite simply, content marketing is putting content out into the world that could help people find you, trust you, and eventually buy something from you. It’s about building your brand and becoming an authority. But it can just be about being recognisable.

Blog tours

If you’ve taken part in a blog tour, congrats, you’ve done content marketing! These are excellent because they get your name out there on multiple sites, promoting your book and increasing recognition. If every blogger on the tour links back to your website as well (called a backlink), that’s building your website authority, which makes Google more likely to recognise that when they search for your book title, or your name, they mean you.

Sharing your knowledge

Okay, so blog tours are great because your book title and image will be around all over the place and hopefully more people will see it because it’s being shared by multiple people.

An example of some promo images I’ve been putting out there…

But when it comes to people googling your name or book title, well, the work’s already been done. So how do you reach those people who don’t know who the hell you are, or how much they’d enjoy your book?

You blog!

By blogging about things your audience are interested in, you’re more likely to find them! So if you’ve written a novel about a haunted house, writing an article like ‘Top 10 best haunted houses to visit in the UK’ or ‘Top books about haunted houses’ is likely to find you the right audience! (Also, you’d be mad not to add your own book to the bottom of that list!)

There are usually two responses to this recommendation:

How do I know what to write?

How do I know anyone will care?

Simple!

It’s called keyword research and it’s part of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). This is basically how Google figures out what to list at the top of a search page, and how they can tell it was what you were looking for.

A simple way to start is just by researching your topics on Google. Then look at the recommended/alternate questions, or what it autofills with:

Already you’ve now got ideas for multiple articles based on what people are searching for: Top 10 haunted house movies, a review of one of the films, lists or reviews of top attractions, sharing your own haunted story…

As for how to get people to find you? There are a few best practices:

  • Make your title match the search query (if people are searching for ‘haunted houses’ make sure that phrase is in the title)
  • Be clear about what you’re writing (if it’s a list, use bullet points or numbers)
  • Have a look at what other people have written on the subject, can you add anything else? Have you got a new approach, or more information?
  • Share it on social media!

Obviously, on a professional level there’s loads more you can do, and there’s lots of tech opportunities and you can deep dive into keyword research and competition to get to the top of the listings, but from an author level, all you want to do is raise your profile!

Write for others

This one’s a no brainer but try to get written features elsewhere, whether that print or online. It doesn’t have to be a newspaper or magazine (although that’s excellent) – just being featured on a fellow author’s blog, or a bloggers page, with a link back to your site is helpful.

You reach potential new audiences and hopefully get a link back to your site. Whilst link building isn’t as important as it once was, think of it the way you would about a library book that’s been taken out hundreds of times: you’d trust that book, wouldn’t you? If so many people have found it helpful, it’ll probably help you too.

That’s what backlinks do for your website – they build authority.

Build a brand

This is one of the parts authors find hard – to summarise who they are and what they’re about as an author. After all, just because you wrote about haunted houses, it doesn’t make you an expert, does it?

So find out what you are an expert in! Or more than that, share what you’re passionate about! And try to link it to your book if you can.

Maybe you did research for your last book and visited some interesting places? Maybe you write in a specific way, or in a special place? Maybe a dream or a strange interaction sent you on your writing journey? Find out what it is that makes your writing interesting, and write about that!

If you’re interested to learn more about how content marketing can benefit you as an author, and get more into the nitty gritty of metadata, html and Google’s search algorithm, come chat to me on Twitter (@almichael_) because I’m a nerd about all this stuff.

And if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below!

When writing full time isn’t the goal…

It’s meant to be the dream, isn’t it? Being a full time writer has a level of authority – you’re good enough to survive, you must be doing a good job!

But one of the problems with the publishing industry and writing in general is that there’s so much of a disconnect around what writers make, how they survive and how we measure success.

To someone who has never met a professional writer, they’ll immediately assume you’re a JK Rowling. You are well paid for your books and you never have to worry. Publication means you’re rolling in it.

It’s only when you explain royalties and digital pricing and everything else, that people start to get it. In which case, you’re suddenly a failure. But here’s the thing – you can write a book that everyone is talking about, but not make much money from it. You can make a lot of money on sales and still be a complete unknown only selling self-published ebooks. Money is not the only measure of success with books, in fact, I’d say it’s a terrible one.

We don’t ask what situations people are in when they’re full time writers. We don’t know if they’re self employed through other means, if they’re supplementing their income, if they’ve taken early retirement, inherited a bunch of money, sold a company, won the lottery, have a partner who works so they don’t have to, if they’re a stay at home parent. We don’t ask. We assume that those people are doing better than everyone else.

Writing is the only job I’ve had where strangers feel comfortable asking how much I make. But we also don’t acknowledge privilege when it comes to being a full time writer. That doesn’t mean those writers aren’t working super hard. It doesn’t mean it’s not a full time job. It just means it would be good if they acknowledged they probably wouldn’t have to survive on the money their books bring in.

But hey, talking about money is awkward. Talking about success is hard, and why would we want to minimise a moment of feeling successful?

That’s only the start, though. Because if writing full time is a sign of success, surely we should all want to be doing that? That should be the dream, right? That was what I was working towards for a long time. In fact, I started my writing career as a full time writer – I ran writing workshops, tutored in English and creative writing and did everything I could to survive and thrive. It was a badge of honour – this was what I trained for and I was doing it.

But it was hard! It was so hard! It was lonely. There was so much pressure on my books to sell, on me to write more and more quickly. I had to have a quick turn around in order to survive. I had to be grateful and not make waves because I depended on those book deals. And I wasn’t building anything, beyond an author name. No pension, no savings, no work life balance.

So I got a regular job. And, as much as I resisted it, it actually improved my writing. I wrote more regularly, I loved it more. It removed the pressure, it allowed me to write what I liked.

That was what success looked like to me. And maybe, one day in the future, I’ll want to return to writing full time. When it’s not about the money. When success is reduced to its purest form – seeing people read and love your work.

So when you don’t feel like you’re doing enough as an author, remember:

We all measure success differently!

Why writing for wellbeing is not self indulgent

Hey gang! I’m back!

I was off running workshops at Larmertree Festival this past weekend, and it reminded me how much I love running writing for wellbeing activities. Using writing to become introspective, to look at yourself through metaphor, to explore and re-inhabit your good memories…it all feels rejuvinating.

My favourite one this weekend was Letters to the Moon, where we explored different memories and symbols of the moon in celebration of the Moon Landing anniversary.

My other session was called Wild Words, and it was about exploring inner wildness – the prompts were about what ‘wild’ meant to you, and making a wild promise to yourself.

One of the participants, perhaps expecting a more traditional writing workshop, said that writing about her own feelings felt ‘self indulgent’.

This is one of the main lies of the inner critic when it comes to writing – you have nothing to say that’s worth listening to. You aren’t having thoughts that haven’t been had a hundred times before.

I am here to tell that critic to shut up. In fact, I’m here to tell you the opposite: writing your feelings is not only NOT self indulgent, it’s NECESSARY.

If you need to process things, if you haven’t got another outlet for exploration, if you don’t know how you feel about yourself, your life, your dreams…writing can help!

I’m an introvert, so as well as finding the festival quite intense this weekend, I took the opportunity to write my way around some thoughts and issues I was having. I’ve been quite low energy and ‘off’ over the last few weeks and having the opportunity to start a dialogue with my inner critic, to ask her what’s up and what I’m struggling with was really helpful.

So here’s my response: writing about yourself, from your perspective, about your feelings is NOT SELF INDULGENT. The same way that going for a run, eating something that makes you happy, having a long bath, chatting with your best mates or turning up for therapy is NOT SELF INDULGENT. It’s self care. It’s showing up for yourself and acknowledging that you have something to say.

So whether you’re writing a book, a diary, a poem, a to do list…do it because you have something to say!

And if you’d like to do one of the activities we did, start with:

‘I am wild like a ……….’

Feel free to share how you find the activity, or what you think about ideas of writing and self indulgence. Do you feel guilty taking the time to write? Do you worry about the value of your words?

The risk of unlikeable females

It’s every author’s worst nightmare:
‘I like the book, I’m just not sure she’s a likeable character.’

I totally get it – we need the reader to give a crap about the person they’re reading about. That’s the whole point. You need to care. And yet every time this question comes up, I want to say ‘to hell with it! She is who she is – she doesn’t need to be liked!’

Of course, I don’t do that. Because I do want you to love her, and invest in her and want the best for her…even if you don’t like her sometimes.

In my forthcoming book about two friends, I was very concerned about the likeability of one of the characters. She’s a renegade, she’s confident, she doesn’t take shit from people and she’s inherently selfish. She was pretty much created out of my own self hatred whenever I agree to do something I don’t want to do, or prioritise someone else’s needs above my own in a stupid way, or apologise for something that I know wasn’t my fault.

Any time I diminished myself, I put more life into Cass. Cass is a ballbuster – she’ll call you out and push you to your limits and she sucks at apologising and she always does what’s best for her.

And I worried about that. Because it’s hard for a woman to be like that. If you’re not nice, what are you?

So my other main character, Lauren, is the antithesis of that – in fact, she’s me. She’s anxious and angry, and can’t deal with her feelings. She thinks something mean and then feels bad about it. She says the thing that feels right at the time and then tortures herself with it for hours. She does what people ask, and she goes with the flow.

It surprised me that Lauren was the one people were worried about when it came to likeability.

Because she was bitter. She was jealous. She thought mean things and didn’t take chances and even though she did the kind thing, she was kind in her thoughts about it.

It blew me away because I thought Lauren got a free pass – she’d been through some tough shit, and she was handling it badly, wouldn’t you? I wanted to defend my poor little Lauren, and myself.

And I wanted to defend female characters in general.

It’s gendered, without a doubt.

Women need to be nice. We need to like them. No one stopped reading Fight Club because Tyler Durden was an arsehole. No one stopped reading American Psycho because they couldn’t relate to the absolute psychopath.

Fictional women, just like real women, are held to a higher standard. Yes, be interesting and flawed and broken, and vulnerable. But also be strong and sassy. Be flirtatious, but not too sexy. Be just a little unsure of your looks, even when you’re confident in your work life. Never think you’re beautiful. Never accept a compliment. Demurely discard it.

If anything, look at the reaction to a female football star declaring that she deserved her win – outrage! How dare she? Because male footballers aren’t arrogant at all. For some reason, it doesn’t look right on a woman, and that’s because we aren’t showing it.

I love unlikeable characters. I’ll admit, I had to grow into them but time and perspective changes your feelings too. When I was a kid I used to watch Gone with the Wind with my nan and my mum. Super long movie, but I loved the big fancy dresses, and how Rhett Butler swept in and wanted to look after Scarlett. I could never understand how she was so interested in boring Ashley when there was Rhett, being all Rhett-like.

I couldn’t stand Scarlett the first few times I watched that movie. She was mean and conceited and selfish. She never did anything for anyone else, only cared about herself, put her feelings for her sister’s husband above anything else and didn’t care who she hurt along the way.

I remember saying so to my mum, who shook her head and said, ‘Oh but poor darling, she was only a teenager when she was widowed. She’s all dressed in black and just wants to dance and be a kid. She’s so young and everything’s so hard.’

When I grew up, I began to love Scarlett. Yes, she was conceited and young and stupid, but she was tenacious, determined. She was a survivor, no matter what. She worked hard, and she knew how to charm people to get what she needed, to keep her home, put food on the table.

She is one of the most complicated female characters I’ve ever seen, and every time I watch that movie (I need to re-read the book, that was a teenage read and I have a feeling my thoughts will have changed!) I feel differently about her.

But I love that she’s complex. There are so many people in our lives who we accept are contradictions. They’re wonderful and loving, but their politics are opposite to our own. The elderly relative who accidentally says awful things, or can’t understand modern issues, but was there for you when you needed them. People are complex and flawed and beautiful and awful. They make poor choices and think bad thoughts and try to do the best they can.

I think that’s more important that likability.

So I hope you do like my girls in the new book – I hope you like their friendship, their devotion to each other, their dedication to the child in their care. I hope you fall in love with their memories and you want to yell at them when they’re stupid and empathise with them when they fall prey to their weaknesses.

But more than that, I hope you find them interesting. Because that is far better than liking them, in my opinion.

You can like a sunrise, but you can’t tear your eyes away from a storm.

What do you think – do unlikeable characters put you off a book? Has it stopped you finishing a book? Which unlikeable characters do you love the most?

Taking time to celebrate

If you’re following a lot of authors online, or you’re an author yourself, you’ll know yesterday was the HarperCollins Summer Party. It’s the event of the season and yesterday was my first one!

Author meet ups are always a little strange – people you talk to online regularly become real people in real life! The editors and agents you may only recognise from Bookseller news updates, or very kind rejections, are suddenly hanging around and being introduced. There’s so many beautiful people that the famous ones sort of merge in and about because everyone looks sort of famous.

It’s in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it was everything I’d thought: opulent, stunning and only slightly terrifying.

If you’re an author, you know there are so many times where movies and TV shows make being a writer look glamorous. In real life, there are not that many opportunities to get all dressed up, hang out with other writers and feel a little bit special for being a creator.

So even though I get a little anxious, and I didn’t really chat to anyone I didn’t already know (networking is not my thing!) I did really enjoy myself. I saw authors I recognised form online. I recognised authors whose work I absolutely love (and may have quietly fangirled before running away at the end of the night!) and I laughed and chatted with my agent, and editor and friends.

Also – BIG DRAW – the museum very kindly opened up the Dior Exhibition (which I failed to get tickets to months ago) and it was so beautiful to see it in the evening without huge crowds.

My lesson from this lovely party is to celebrate whenever you can. Don’t just save celebrations for publication day! Celebrate finishing a first draft, finishing edits, solving a problem, starting something new!

How do you celebrate your writerly achievements?

Debut or not to debut: that is the question…

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously being ignored, or to take arms against the indifference, and by saying you’re a debut, end them?

Okay, it was a bad bastardisation, but the question is still the same:

What is the big deal around debuts?

You may be surprised to find that a lot of your very impressive debut authors are experienced writing roses by another name. For some reason, in publishing, debuts are a HUGE deal.

I’m not entirely sure why, because it seems pretty counter-intuitive to how you pick someone for any other job. Even when you do submit as an author, you often have to show that you have clout – you’ve been writing a blog, or reviews, you have a good social following or you’ve written before.

When you’ve been a published writer for years, you have a following to work from, a target market to work towards, measures of success and sales and a relationship with publishers and authors.

But that can also work against you – if your sales were good, but not amazing. If you had a bad book (hey, it happens) or the book that looked like it was going to be phenomenal had a failure to launch…those things have an impact.

As a debut, you don’t have a backlog of work, you have nothing but the talent of that one manuscript, and a heap of potential. And that, as in most stories, is more appealing. It makes a better narrative, to hit it out of the park with an amazing debut. It makes those debut authors seem so sparkly and talented, and lucky! They build momentum more easily, because they automatically seem more successful.

And we buy into it as authors too. We think ‘oh crap, I missed my chance’ because our first books weren’t bestsellers. And yet, every book I’ve written has been better than the last. Every time I write another, I learn something new, and I get another chance to tell a story.

So why wouldn’t we use that experience? Why isn’t it valued?

Well, it is.

That’s why a bunch of those debut authors are actually experienced authors with new names!

Some people find that annoying, or misleading. And in many ways it’s super dumb. But as an author, I find it so comforting. Because these are authors who have been slogging away, working hard, improving their writing and possibly creating in other genres before they try something new.

A new direction, the chance for growth and a do over: a fresh start. That’s exciting no matter what industry you work in!

So I’m joining the ranks of the ‘new-name-start-over’ society – no one’s pretending I’m a debut, and I’m certainly not hiding my experience, but maybe with a new name, a new direction and a little luck, new people can find my books and be excited to discover something.

What do you think about debuts, as a writer, reader, publisher or anything else? Do you take a chance on a debut, or are you more likely to read your existing favourite author’s new books?

Want to write more? Get yourself a writer squad

I am not a fan of differentiating between writing professionally and writing as a hobby in most cases. Because, to me, if you love writing, you’re a writer. End of story.

However, if you are writing professionally, or working your way on a journey to publication, having a group of writer friends can make a huge difference. To your attitude, your positivity, your decision making and your tenacity in an industry that can sometimes be a little hard to deal with.

I think it comes down to 3 types of writer friends.

Ones who write too:

I really enjoyed studying creative writing as part of my degree at university, and in so doing I found a group of like-minded people. People who wanted to explore their craft, who saw the world a certain way and wanted to dedicate their lives to creativity. Even as our lives have changed, our jobs have moved in different directions, I still have friends who are happy to chat about their fictional worlds and pretend people.

Ones who encourage you to write:

With both friends and colleagues, I’ve always enjoyed having ‘writing dates’. These aren’t so much about the talking about the writing, but just being around others who do it too. Facilitating your own writing whilst encouraging others to do it too is the most fun. It’s like a mini-retreat, where you can focus on your writing without the guilt of ignoring others, or the loneliness of locking yourself away!

Ones who are also professionals:

The professional writing world can be really hard. Submitting to publishers or agents, waiting to hear, rewriting and dealing with difficult edits, disappointing reviews or publication days that didn’t go as planned. It can be a world of crazy highs and lows and not everyone gets it.

There are loads of people out there who would dismiss someone ‘writing another little book’, or who think it’s crap, or pointless or that you’re wasting your time.

My author friends are the ones I talk to when I’m not sure if contract terms are normal, or if I’m pulling my hair out over edits. They’re the ones I tell when I get a new deal, or I’ve finished a rewrite, or when there’s exciting news on the horizon.

Someone who gets how difficult and amazing it is to write a book is the person you want to share your news with. They give it gravitas, they won’t dismiss it and they’ll understand exactly what you’re going through and what it means.

Writing can be hard enough, without coming up against negativity, doubt or that distinct look that just says ‘I don’t get it’. If you don’t know writers, hop on Twitter or into Facebook groups! They’re so full of useful information, comradery and support.

Also, don’t miss out on your agent or publisher parties – as an introvert I sometimes find them a bit overwhelming (and then I drink too much to feel confident and that is not a good idea!) but it’s so worth it to have friendships that nourish and support your creativity.

Do you have writer friends? What types? And what do they mean to you?